-The Canada Revenue Agency provides exemplary customer service, both on-line and through in-person phone inquiries;
-In Ontario the Health Links program is providing coordinated care to patients with chronic conditions; and a Community Homelessness Prevention initiative is similarly seeing successful coordination between different agencies and the pooling of previously siloed funding.
- Alberta’s Ministry of Human Services has combined several ministries and departments responsible for human services under one roof, resulting in better collaboration on service design and delivery, and more information-sharing inside government;
- And Ontario’s open policy-making experiment with the collaborative development of new legislation governing condominiums is also notable. It has demonstrated that this sort of “co-production” of policy and legislation results in: clarifying opportunities and issues clearly at the front end; brings more data and expertise to the table; and yields the important dividend of buy-in and commitment from a broad range of participants who entered the process with sometimes competing interests and objectives.
There are lots of similar examples in every Canadian jurisdiction and I discuss some of these case studies in my book. But as exemplary as these and other success stories are, they are part of a mixed story about the capacity and success of public services organizations. Many pockets of impressive, leading-edge public administration, policy and service delivery co-exist alongside deeply entrenched organizational, professional and cultural silos. Funding silos are also an issue.
As I reflect on writing my book about improving public services, it occurs to me that three recurring opportunities (necessities) emerged repeatedly in almost every chapter: crossing organizational boundaries; the development of significantly stronger and higher-level human resources strategy and leadership; and the importance of a new form of public sector leadership. I'm not breaking any new ground in mentioning these, but I now see them a little differently.
Three things are important about these three areas of practice: First, while each is often discussed, they are seldom considered together or recognized for the inter-connections and synergies between them. Second, all three are squarely within the accountability of public servants (in these areas political support might be helpful, but political permission is not required). Third, while many public service organizations have made progress in these areas there is a tendency to have declared victory early and to assume the job is done – whereas each should be considered as critical areas of ongoing practice and elevated accordingly.
So a few words on the three areas:
Despite a couple of decades of discussion about developing a more integrated and collaborative approach to working within government and with those outside of it, this remains a work-in-progress. I know this because public service staff and managers talk about it a lot. There are lots of places where this is being done well, but it is not uniformly practiced across government. This speaks to Joining up inside and outside government, and includes the way we share data, develop policies and programs and design delivery mechanisms. It involves collaboration within and between organizations, inter-jurisdictional relationships and crossing boundaries to develop more active relationships with citizens, service users and potential partners in policy-making and delivery – including social enterprises and other sources of social capital. Crossing boundaries outside of government coincides with the fairly recent interest on the part of some political administrations in more open government. Some federal public servants in Canada have likely experienced a shift in this direction already, while many will have been quietly crossing boundaries to other levels of government and external organizations because they know it's the right thing to do.
Human Resources Strategy and Leadership
High level HR strategy and leadership is hugely important in all organizations, but is often under-rated or marginalized. This is certainly true in the public sector. And yet HR practice touches everything we say is important in public sector workplaces: Attraction, retention, talent management, succession planning, performance management, incentive structures, culture change, engaging staff and managers, building new skills and capacity and promoting innovation … and so on. There is an obvious crossover here to the importance of building “boundary-spanning” skills and capacity for just-in-time policy making as well as the design and management of large public infrastructure projects. Leadership development fits in here too.
Public Service Leadership
Public service leaders work in the constitutional shadows of elected political leaders and often in risk-averse environments. I regularly hear from public servants that it’s hard to get things done in this sort of context and I have a sense that too many managers and leaders spend too much time in a “caretaker” mode while waiting for signals, permission or directions to make changes approved in a political office.
As I have written in a previous post, there is considerable space and opportunity for public service leadership – both in improving policy and service delivery and in building capacity to better support the government of the day. In many cases, permission is not required. Political leaders expect this from public servants; they assume it is in our job descriptions. So there is both lots of space for more active forms of public service leadership and an expectation that public servants are exploring that space – including with their counterparts across organizational boundaries.
In turn, staff and managers look to leaders as role models. Leaders who are open with information, who cross boundaries, and who are conscious about the importance of recruitment, aligning the right talent with key projects and who think about succession planning are signalling the importance of these practices to others. This is one of the ways through which we can start to shift culture.
In summary, it seems to me that stepped-up approaches to crossing boundaries, an elevated focus on HR, and a more active approach to public service leadership are important separately but are also inter-related and synergistic. If we can do better in these areas our organizations will benefit considerably, as will our ability to achieve priority outcomes in the practice of public administration and in serving elected governments. This is not insurmountable, but it is hard work. Citizens should expect no less.